A trumpeter of rare poise and vision, San Francisco’s Ian Carey makes a striking statement with Roads & Codes, an ambitious project that weaves his evocative original compositions together with the music of Stravinsky, Ives, and Neil Young. Rather than venturing into fusion or jazz/classical Third Stream territory, Carey and his intrepid band interpret the music from an acoustic, post-bop perspective. Whether brooding, bruising, or bluesy, each piece is arranged with an unerring sense of narrative flow, though the journey often feels more like an episodic dreamscape than a logically linear affair.
A skilled graphic artist who also works as a designer, Carey incorporated his love of graphic novels and Japanese manga into Roads & Codes, including the slyly self-referential cover art that explains his illustrations as part of a strategy for attracting a wider audience. Expertly mixing his two creative outlets, he programmed the album almost like an impressionistic novel, with beautifully rendered illustrations representing each tune.
“The dilemma is how to get the music heard and noticed, since the music covers a lot of ground and it’s not a slam dunk for any one subgenre,” Carey says. “I figured I could reflect that struggle in the graphics, representing this music in a way that would be interesting and true to it.”
He brings a painterly approach to his music. While the album showcases his supple, arrestingly beautiful trumpet work, Carey avoids writing themes that serve only as launching pads for extended improvisation. He devised Roads & Codes so that solos emerge organically from his lapidary orchestrations. Inspired by the compositional skills of seminal figures like Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Teddy Charles, Andrew Hill, George Russell, Herbie Hancock, and Maria Schneider (with whom he studied at New School in New York City), he artfully maintains a precarious balance between finely calibrated arrangements and unfettered improvisation.
What elevates Roads & Codes from an audacious experiment to an impressive jazz achievement is Carey’s stellar band, a highly cohesive ensemble for which he’s been composing for the past decade. The only newcomer is the +1 alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, a Dolphyan player who has earned a vaunted reputation for her work with several singular outfits (including the Carla Bley–dedicated Permanent Wave Ensemble).
A longtime admirer of Knudsen’s work, Carey recruited her to expand the textural possibilities of his long-running quintet. She provided a creative jolt with a “musical language that’s amazing to me,” Carey says. “She doesn’t do anything in a simple or predictable way.” The quintet’s charter members include tenor saxophonist/flutist Evan Francis, who has since departed for New York City, pianist Adam Shulman, bassist Fred Randolph, and drummer Jon Arkin, all musicians in high demand.
“Fred has a very energetic dynamic,” Carey says. “He’s a really vivacious as a player. Jon is a master at quiet dynamics. He is so skilled at getting musical and emotional power at low volumes. He’s the Buddha of the group, and he and Fred have a real push and pull thing going. Evan is the trickster with a real mischievous side who never approaches anything the same way twice. And Adam has a beautiful harmonic palette with an amazing swing feel. I feel like I’m often pushing him to slightly uncomfortable situations, which brings out great performances. And because of that pushing, when given a chance to stretch out, he really cuts loose.”
The album opens with Carey’s “Rain Tune,” an expansive, exhilarating sojourn that keys on an ebullient, dancing Francis flute solo. The serpentine “6 Av Local” sails out of the station with a lustrous brass fanfare, and then deliberately wends its way to a gently stuttering climax. With the melancholy feel of a hymn about life’s impermanence, Carey’s gently tweaked interpretation of Neil Young’s haunting theme from Jim Jarmusch’s surreal 1995 western Dead Man is set to a slightly off-kilter 5/4 groove.
“I love that movie and I think the music is really essential for the mood and story,” Carey says. “The chords are so simple, but shifting it to 5/4 makes it more interesting for our context. I went for a different sonic feel, using effects in my solo for a less traditional sound.”
Fierce and flashing, “Nemuri Kyoshiro” is an epic blues showdown between stylish combatants, while Carey’s ravishingly lyrical flugelhorn hat tip to trumpet great Kenny Wheeler, “Wheels,” rolls along with a buoyant 2-over-3 feel. “Count Up” blazes through the chord changes to Coltrane’s fiendish steeplechase “Countdown,” a piece that has occupied Carey’s consciousness for many years.
The album concludes with what feels like a mini-suite of modernism, introduced by Stravinsky’s brief by enthralling “Andante.” Stravinsky’s sensuous theme resurfaces in the midst of “The Thread,” as an elegant foil to Carey’s earthy but introspective theme. The album ends mid-conversation with Ives’s majestic “West London,” which was “originally a setting for a poem, and it concludes with an incredibly consonant, almost standup-and-salute note,” Carey says. “I wanted to find a way to use Ives’s notes but take them to different places—at one point that’s an indie rock vibe, at another more of an Eric Dolphy/Booker Little feel.”
Born in 1974 in Binghamton, New York, Carey grew up in a house suffused with music and art. His mother, the late Judi Carey, worked as an illustrator and arts fundraiser. His father Philip is a museum exhibit designer and gallery-represented graphic artist with a long-running series illustrating his vivid dreams. Also an adventurous vocalist, he performed with the Gregg Smith Singers in the 1960s, a chorus that frequently worked with Igor Stravinsky and won a Grammy in 1966 for the Columbia LP Ives: Music for Chorus.
Ian’s first musical outlet was singing Baroque works in church, where his exposure to a brass quartet turned his eye to the trumpet. He started on cornet in junior high, and after the family relocated to Folsom, near Sacramento, California, he took up the French horn. When he showed remarkable facility on trumpet in the 10th grade he was quickly recruited, and within several weeks had taken over the lead trumpet chair.
Two years of classical trumpet studies at the University of Nevada in Reno gave Carey the opportunity to play with visiting artists Eddie Daniels and Ernie Watts. Transferring to the New School, he studied trumpet with Cecil Bridgewater, Vincent Penzarella, and Charles Tolliver and composition with Bill Kirchner and Maria Schneider. He honed his improvisational chops in small group classes with Joanne Brackeen, Andrew Cyrille, Billy Harper, and Reggie Workman, and during the next seven years he had opportunities to perform with players as diverse as Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Bert, Ted Curson, Loren Schoenberg, Rory Stuart, Marion Brown, Ali Jackson, Aaron Alexander, and Eugene Osborne Smith.
Loath to leave New York City after graduating from the New School with a B.A. in Jazz and Contemporary Music, he spent five years with a night job as a proofreader, which left him little time for to sit in at jam sessions and gather with colleagues, let alone pursue gigs. “It was incredibly stimulating, but you end up having to take something totally unrelated to music, and that got very frustrating,” Carey recalls. When a friend hooked him up with a summer sublet in San Francisco he was ready for a break from the Gotham grind. “I felt right away that this is a better situation,” Carey says. “I met good players right away and started playing. And I lucked into some design work that was much more creative than what I’d been doing in New York.”
Quickly recognized as a formidable improviser, Carey performed around the Bay Area with top- notch ensembles like the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, guitarist Mike Irwin Johnson’s 8 Legged Monster, multi-instrumentalist Adam Theis’s Realistic Orchestra, accordionist Rob Reich’s Circus Bella All-Star Band, vocalist Betty Fu, and pianists Ben Stolorow and the late B.J. Papa, as well as visiting luminaries like pianist and composer Satoko Fujii. But his ambition was always to create a band focusing on his original material. He got the chance when he landed a regular spot at Financial District watering hole The House of Shields in 2002. The gig lasted for four years, enough time to develop a book of some 40 original tunes.
He first documented the group on 2005’s Sink/Swim, an impressive debut session featuring Shulman, Francis, Randolph, and Arkin. By the time he released 2010’s critically hailed Contextualizin’, the band had consciously sidestepped the hard-bop sound by foregrounding Francis’s highly accomplished flute work. In developing the music for Roads & Codes, his third album on his Kabocha Records label, Carey wanted to explore more intricate writing, and move further away from head-solo-head conventions.
“Something I learned from Maria Schneider is to tailor solo sections to strengths of the player,” Carey says. “I don’t just have everyone play over the same changes. Many tunes have two or three different solo sections.”
With Roads & Codes Carey leaves no doubt that he’s discovered a creative path that elides jazz clichés in favor of bold, unapologetic beauty. Joined by a dedicated cast of collaborators, he navigates cryptic, sometimes mysterious territory, emerging with stories that no one else is telling.